At today’s TCA, Ken Burns, co-director and executive producer of PBS’ Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, said that of his many documentaries this is “different from any other. I didn’t shoot a single interview.”
That’s because Burns shares directorship with Artemis W. Joukowsky, grandson of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife from Wellesley, MA, a couple who helped refugees and dissidents escape from Nazis in Eastern Europe. Joukowsky had been collecting interviews, historical documents and other information since the age of 14.
Describing his first interview with his grandmother for school at that age, Joukowsky joked the interview was “the only A I ever got in high school.”
Of documentaries in general, Burns said “these films are made in the editing room” and that his job was to shape the existing materials. He added that he brought in Tom Hanks as the voice of Waitstill: “I was able to get a little known actor named Tom Hanks, I think that helped,” Burns joked, encouraging the listeners to keep an eye on Hanks because “he’s going someplace” as an actor.
Burns said that as a documentarian he rejects the idea of doing re-enactments of events as “sort of cheesy. If you are going to re-enact the Civil War, why not just do Mercy Street?” he asked, referring to the PBS original series on the historic conflict.
He also said that since he limits his documentaries to American stories, he had no plans to do a documentary on the current refugee crisis. He praised Joukowsky for his continuing efforts to reward rescuers in various crisis situations.
The film is told through letters and journals of the Sharps with Tom Hanks providing the voice of Waitstill and Marina Goldman as the voice of Martha. The film also features commentary from some of the leading Holocaust scholars.